Sometimes history is shaped in the oddest of places. More than four decades ago in a modest lecture room at a British university, Botswana’s first president, Sir Seretse Khama, was addressing Batswana students. In the crowd was an inquisitive young lady who was searching for answers to her questions about Botswana.
The verbal exchange they would begin that day would go on to shape the course of Botswana’s political affairs. That young lady was Dr Habaudi Hobona, then a medical student who was part of an association championing the Bakalaka cause.
“I remember asking Seretse whether our people’s political understanding made our democracy anything to be proud of,” she says.
“I can’t remember what his answer was. There was a lot of illiteracy in the country. Although most African independent states had adopted one party democracy, our government had instead adopted a multi party democracy,” said Hobona.
Circumstances would later conspire to bring her face to face with the answer to her question. Hobona joined the civil service and was thrown into the deep end of the challenges facing the country. The budding politician in her was convinced that things could be done better.
She felt that most ordinary Batswana did not know their rights and believed that government was doing them favours by providing them with social services.
“It was frustrating. The status quo remains today. The feudal system is designed like that. The rulers have this kind of ownership mentality over the people they rule. The people literally wait for hand outs from government. There is no spirit of ownership. There is no spirit of self entitlement. It’s all subservience. That is not good for any democracy because the rulers develop a master mentality,” says Hobona.
For 24 years Hobona endured the frustrations of working in the civil service, but never passed up an opportunity to speak her mind. “I never hesitated to tell the authorities what it is that the people wanted. The late Chapson Butale, as Minister of Health knew my stand. She sympathized with me. I would complain vociferously against the health care standards at the hospitals and clinics. I never hid my misgivings,” she says.
Her biggest challenge in the civil service came with the building of Nyangabgwe Referral Hospital where she oversaw the setting up of the surgical and clinical departments before she rose to the position of hospital superintendent. As fate would have it, this was at the time Francistown and its peripheries were dying of HIV and AIDS.
“A lot of people were dying. The hospital was accused of being a butchery of sorts. We were at the receiving end; we caught the flak and the myth was hard to debunk. Prominent people by-passed clinics and sought services at Nyangabgwe. The situation only abated after Kebatlamang Morake intervened,” said Hobona, adding that despite her misgivings about the poor health care, she remained in the civil service because she had the itch to serve the people.
The itch later developed into a remarkable political career. Her driving force in politics is the concern for the quality of life of people in the rural communities. This explains her decision to contest a parliamentary seat in a rural constituency.
Hobona eventually left the civil service in 2001, opened her own surgical clinic in Francistown and joined active politics under the BCP to which she remains a cradle of opposition women politics. Despite a series of defeats at the hands of BDP candidates, she has never looked back. Twice she lost to the late Baledzi Gaolathe (2004 and 2009). Following the untimely death of Gaolathe she lost to incumbent Tonota North MP Fidelis Molao.
“I decided to contest Tonota North constituency because there was an ingrained belief in the BDP that the constituency was their safe seat. At the beginning, the people in that constituency as it happens in non-urban constituencies were taken for granted. Of course people voted without any conscience because they were not politically conscious. We had to do a lot of groundwork to ensure they understood what their vote meant.”
She says she is happy that although the constituency still remains in the hands of the BDP, a lot of voters are beginning to understand that when government services them, it is not doing them a favour. The government is there to deliver social services to them in terms of their mandate. It is not a favour.
“Before 2004, the opposition votes in that constituency were less than 500. In the 2004 general election we raised the people’s consciousness and garnered over 1500 votes. It was a big leap in a rural constituency, especially in the Bangwato territory. That gave us a lot of encouragement to work even harder in the coming election,” said Hobona.
She said she has persevered politically because the inequalities and challenges that inspired her into joining politics still remain in place to date. She says her perseverance is stocked by the realisation that people are beginning to understand their rights in addition to asserting and demanding them.
She decries that the rural communities are plagued by diseases, unemployment, poverty and illiteracy to the extent that most do not appreciate that they have rights that the state has to protect.
“It is in this context that we ought to intensify our political education to emancipate the people away from the mentality of viewing services from government as a favour but rather a right that is enshrined in the constitution.”
She added that a lot of messages are not getting to the people because they are delivered in the Setswana language, which happens not to be their mother tongue. Hobona finds that completely abominable and accused BDP of not speaking the language of the people, especially the minorities.
“Minority tribes are being discriminated against by the ruling party. Their languages are not being recognized as the only official languages are Setswana and English. It is disheartening that the ruling party decided to stop the teaching of some of our languages, especially Ikalanga, in schools at independence. The abolition of the teaching of other languages showed the extent of how undemocratic our country or government was. It is such injustices that have to be fought to the bitter end,” said Hobona, who added that at high school years back she was a member of the Bakalanga Association.
She said despite the excitement that followed the attainment of independence in 1966, the end of the British rule did not bring any changes to the status quo.
“As a student, I sympathized with people who were against the use of Botswana as the republic’s new name because it was not inclusive. Why did we choose this name? When I grew up, I was not called a Motswana. Neither were my parents. Our language was deliberately abolished from the schools in a bid to ensure its extinction. At times I just wondered whether there was no hatched plan to kick us out of the country,” said Hobona in an extremely disappointed tone.
Squeezing her eyes through the spectacles, she revealed that although as a student she was not vocal, she nevertheless was concerned with the treatment of the so-called minority tribes in the new democratic dispensation under Seretse Khama, which they viewed as a continuation of the Tshekedi oppression of the Bakalanga and other minorities.
She said although their misgivings at the time could not be equated to politicking, when she was studying in the UK, they became very vocal against the establishment of private schools because in their view, that had the potential to streamline and discriminate against the marginalised or underprivileged in the education system.
“It could not be said that we were not excited at the fact that our country had gained independence from the British. Although we were happy that Seretse Khama was the president of the new republic, we nonetheless had our misgivings.”
Hobona is unhappy that despite the fact that government instituted the 1993 Kedikilwe Education Commission Report, it has not implemented the recommendations arising from the subsequent white paper.
She has also called for electoral reforms to ensure that Botswana moves in tandem with modern democracies, saying Botswana is trailing behind its neighbours who only attained independence in the 1990s.
“As an old democracy we are no shining example as we used to be. Civil liberties are breached with impunity. There is no respect for oversight institutions and the rule of law. The Khama administration is a law unto itself. There is no interparty dialogue to enhance and address our democratic deficiencies,” she said in a hushed tone.
She said the BCP party should not be blamed for pulling out of the umbrella talks because it had become clear that the talks were not bearing fruit and were delaying the parties from preparing for the 2014 general election.
She says women are not properly resourced to compete equally with men and the quota system has not been achieved although almost all the parties have agreed to the 30 percent women representation quota.
She is happy that some African countries can now boast of women presidents like Liberia and Malawi. She hopes that more will be done to empower Batswana women politically in the not so distant future.